Confused Debate Ignited Over Correct Saying Of ‘Play It By Ear’

by : Joe Harker on : 21 Nov 2021 11:15
Confused Debate Ignited Over Correct Saying Of 'Play It By Ear'Alamy/KnowYourMeme

Is the phrase meant to be ‘play it by ear’ or ‘play it by air’?

When using phrases it’s important to get them right, otherwise things could spiral out of control and we could end up with another ‘I could care less’ situation, where more people are getting it wrong than right.


Maybe that’s why social media account ‘s***tyoushouldcareabout’ asked followers to chip in and say whether they thought the phrase for making things up as you go was ‘play it by ear’ (the correct answer) or ‘play it by air’ (very much not the correct answer).

Luckily, the vast majority of people landed on the correct answer of ‘play it by ear’, although some have been arguing that the phrase is actually ‘play it by year’, as in taking life one year at a time. That’s also wrong.

As for those 3.4% of people who somehow think the right answer is ‘play it by air’, there’s always the Lizardman’s Constant to remember, which suggests that in any poll about 4% of people are going to give a weird answer.


With that in mind, perhaps it’s surprising that more people didn’t get it wrong, though at least you can all be safe in the knowledge that most people around you know what ‘play it by ear’ means.

Now for the historical bit. According to Grammarphobia, ‘play it by ear’ has its roots in the sixteenth century, with the phrase building on the use of the word ‘ear’ to talk about someone’s ability to recognise music, which previously spawned the term ‘have a good ear’.

About a century later, people were using ‘play it by ear’ to describe someone being able to play an instrument without written music, and from there it took on meaning as being able to do something by relying on intuition rather than needing a plan.


So now you know, and if you ever hear someone saying people ought to ‘play it by air’ then you can show how clever you are by correcting them, or alternatively you could ask them whether they also think lizard-people secretly rule the world.

If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]

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  1. Instagram


  2. Grammarphobia

    Let’s play it by ear